The World's Newest (and Cheapest) Subway: Beijing's Line 5


These days, given costs and land development, it takes a stretch of the imagination to imagine adding a new subway line to most cities in the world (consider New York's perennial attempt), certainly not while also slicing a third off the cost of a fare. But eying massive gridlock and the effects that has on the city's air, Beijing has done just that. Yesterday the Chinese capital opened Line 5, a 27.6 km north-south subway that runs to the east of the Olympic Village, and connects up with two preexisting underground lines and the city's lone light rail. The city also">slashed fares from 3 RMB to 2 (27 cents), about the price of bottled water, in order to boost ridership. The old network, a measly uncomfortable affair mostly constructed in the 1960s and 1970s, can hardly keep pace with a city the size of Beijing -- 17 million inhabitants circumscribed by 6 ring roads. That has meant almost constant gridlock on those roads and heavy pressure on an extensive but overburdened bus system.

But with Line 5, which brings the city's subway rails to a length of 142 km, and reduced fares, citizens and officials alike are hoping for a wholesale transformation of the way Beijing moves. By 2020, the city government envisions having the world's largest subway network.

It would be hard to overstate the excitement over line 5 on opening day. It was clear in the faces of families taking pictures of each other, lit by the gleam of the color-coded stations' shiny walls, and the unusually spiffy looking officials who looked happy to be giving directions. The hordes of straphangers, even on a Sunday night, were a reminder of just how badly the city needs this subway: not just to ease traffic ahead of next year's "green" Olympics, but to become a city of international, and sustainable, proportions.

Video, pictures and more after the jump.

Aside from handicapped accessibility, glass doors between the platform and tracks, and air conditioning, the $1.45 billion subway also includes LCD TVs on board, on the platform, everywhere. Mostly unnecessary, they provide live traffic and weather information, news bites, PSAs, and, come next summer (this is their raison d'etre) the Olympics. (During a trip underground during a test run months ago, they were playing the latest Harry Potter film).

Frustratingly, most of the information is still solely in Chinese--something that will have to change by the time Olympic visitors arrive.


Other features include:

The brand spanking new subway trains are connected with no doors in between carriages, in the style of Hong Kong's MTR.


The trains also boast top speeds of 80 km/hr and can complete the 27.6 km journey in 50 minutes, less than half of the time it would take a bus or car to go the same distance. Constructed entirely of stainless steel (a first), the carriages are 20-cm wider and 50-cm taller, with a capacity for 1,424 persons.


Meanwhile, noise-decreasing material keeps out the sound of the underground, though probably won't do much to shush the chatter of riders on cell phones, which are now usable anywhere underground.


Information terminals at each station provide up-to-the-minute bulletins, local maps and, brilliantly, lists of nearby bus lines.



A wireless communication system on board can display station information and live television, while on-board and on-platform cameras let the police keep watch over nearly every inch of the stations.


People movers have been installed between lines at interchange stations.


Each station's entrance has been designed in refreshingly chic modernist gray and glass.


Though purple is the line's designated color, every station has its own color scheme, and occasionally, a light Chinese flourish, like this traditional chess board etched in the floor.


The trains will soon exclusively use the city's yikatong debit cards instead of old paper tickets, hopefully to the benefit of a whole bunch of trees. Use of the cards is slowly being rolled out at convenience stores, supermarkets and malls.

Price Reduction

Though the new price reduction is meant to alleviate the burden on the city's roads, which hesitantly welcome 1,000 new cars a day, some have doubted whether cutting the price of subway tickets now will have the city's intended effect. On a subway system still pushed to the limit (as on the roads, rush hour seems to last all day underground) bringing in more crowds without enough trains to support them may only turn off a section of commuters who are on the verge of taking taxis or even buying new cars.

"I am sure this will attract more people to use the metro system. But the question is whether or not our subway system can cope with a large number of passengers?" said Xu Guangjian, professor at Renmin University, during a meeting last week to discuss the subway fare cut.

To handle increased demand, authorities have promised to increase subway trains and shorten intervals between trains to boost capacity. But that hasn't quelled concerns, nor has the expenditure to the government -- estimated at 1 billion yuan per year -- at a time when the city needs money for further subway expansion.

To raise the percentage of the population using public transit from the current level of 30 percent to the goal of 40 percent by 2010, the government is also trying to develop satellite towns that will be well served by public transit, improve urban planning policies, impose a fuel tax, and, of course, build more subway lines. By the Olympics, Beijing will also have a new 4 km-long Line 8 (Olympic Branch Line), serving the Olympic Park, the much-awaited 26 km-long Line 10, running from Wanliu in west Beijing to Songjiazhuang in southeastern Beijing, and a high-speed airport express train.

All told, Line 5 is an impressive beginning to Beijing's future development, and by any standard, looks like one of the world's best subways lines, period.



Courtesy BOCOG


This New York Magazine article chronicles New York's ongoing attempt to build the near mythic 2nd avenue subway. See a partial list of the world's unfinished subway lines.

On Treehugger see Subway Systems of the World and Facing Smog and Sluggish Traffic, Beijing Upgrades Its Bus Network.

More on the subway at the Guardian and China Daily
Update: Many thanks to those who wrote comments about the original opening sentence. The idea that "Practically no cities in the world could build a new subway now..." as readers reminded me, is wrong (see Skyscraper City for a list of lines under construction in Europe alone). But considering the sheer cost of such construction, few cities however can manage or afford to build on the scale that China can, especially when it comes to building what may amount to the largest subway in the world. That was the intended meaning, and I stand corrected.

The World's Newest (and Cheapest) Subway: Beijing's Line 5
These days, given costs and land development, it takes a stretch of the imagination to imagine adding a new subway line to most cities in the world (consider New York's perennial attempt), certainly not while also slicing a third off the cost of a

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