Chairman Pip's Railway Thoughts

Take the A Train? Just let me get my degree in advanced calculus first

Posted in America, Metro by Chairman Pip on 12 February 2010

We all know how useful a rapid transit system is to get around a big city. But it does help if people can actually understand how to use it. Of course, if you live there you know because, likely as not, you’ll use it every day. But there’s something to be said for the simplicity of having a route that only goes in one direction each way, and stops at all the stations. Looking at the London Underground, there are a handful of possible sources of confusion I’ll admit:

The District and Piccadilly lines have several termini in the west, so you have to pay attention to which of these the train you need travels to.
The Metropolitan line operates some fast services that do not stop at all stations.
The Northern line has two main branches through Central London.

But, compared with the New York City Subway, the London Underground is simplicity itself. Because of the way it has been built, the NY Subway is able to run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This is a good thing because it means you don’t get stuck if you miss the last train, because there isn’t one. The Subway can operate like this because large parts of it were built using a four track layout, enabling work to be carried out on one set of tracks while trains run on the other. The London Underground is unable to achieve this because the vast majority of its network only has two tracks. But, the Subway is so damned complicated to use because, unlike most RT systems where line and route are the same, the Big Apple has a number of lines (36) upon which it runs several different routes (26), both local (stopping at all stations) and express (stopping only at some stations), which are determined both by letters/numbers and colours (!!!). Let’s take Penn Station as an example. This is a fairly ordinary station for the subway, with four platforms serving four tracks, with two each serving local and express services in each direction. But, you can’t get on any old train to get where you want to go, because the A Train, C Train and E Train all stop there, and they all go in different directions. It’s a wonder that there aren’t herds of feral tourists lost in the depths of the subway, having tried to get from Penn Station to Times Square but ending up in Forest Hills.


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