New York's Subway and London's Underground

by Norman Berdichevsky (Aug. 2007)

The failed terrorist plot to use car bombs in central London and in Glasgow airport almost on the eve of the July 7th anniversary of the successful attacks on London’s underground two years ago sent a new collective shudder up and down the spines of many New Yorkers who have been fearing precisely the same sort of attack against the subway. The two systems in operation since the end of the 19th century have been an integral part of the two cities economic and social life and a veritable part of the two nations’ folklore. They have played a crucial role in maintaining and even increasing the primacy of the two great metropolitan centers of the English-speaking world. Although often contrasted as distinctive microcosms of their national environments, the two systems have drawn increasingly closer together.

Until a few years ago, the New York subway and the London Underground (also known affectionately as “the tube”) were polar opposites in their approach and practice of public transportation policy, differing in almost every significant way in matters of customer care, fare structure, route and station design, service availability and accessibility, rush hour provision and auxiliary services. The two systems reflected in miniature every contrasting facet of American and British societies.

As an American who lived in London for seven years and also worked for London Underground as a station assistant at the Gloucester (pronounced “Gloster”) Road Station on the District Line, I was constantly observing the differences with the system I grew up with in New York and my home station of 167th Street in the Bronx on both the IND and IRT lines. The very first striking contrast is that while the Big Apple never sleeps and the trains run 24 hours a day “round the clock”, London Underground needs a 5-6 hour break during the wee hours of the morning to carry out all the necessary maintenance and cleaning operations.

Many Americans would of course, find this inconvenient since it means that a “night out on the town” in central London requires planning to figure out which one of the night buses would be available for a journey home. The other alternative is of course, the famous London black taxis but their availability is often hard to predict. American tourists also find the same time problem with the early closing hours of British pubs serving hot food.. There is practically nothing in the way of 24 hour supermarkets or fast food joints that most Americans expect should be available in a world capital.

The non-stop pace of life is a distinguishing feature that Londoners on holiday in New York are grateful for when they try to cram every moment into their tightly packed holiday. The more leisurely pace and “civilized” face of the London Tube have been highlighted by returning British tourists and often satirized in the British tabloid press that, on occasion, has featured lurid stories in the “it can’t happen here” vein complete with classic horror tall tales of corpses discovered on the New York subway that had been riding around for several days before being discovered.

A second dramatic contrast between the two systems reflecting the British and American ways of life was valid until just before the turn of the millennium when New York reversed its more than one hundred year old policy of a single standard fare no matter what the distance traveled or the number of stations traversed. London Underground has always maintained a complex fare structure that station assistants are required to learn by heart even if they are not at the cashier window. Whereas in New York, the A train can travel from 241st Street in the Bronx to Far Rockaway in Queens – a total of 38 mils for the same standard fare, traditionally paid for by a token, the same token would be required to get you one quarter of a mile between stations in Lower Manhattan. In classic American fashion, everyone was treated the same and paid equally.

Britain has long been regarded as a highly developed class system of groups enjoying a hierarchy of privileges. It is not too far fetched for most Americans traveling in London Underground to see this class society reflected in the fare system based on ten geographic zones and in addition differentiated by “off peak” or morning and evening rush hours. Even the timing of the morning rush hour is differentiated (9:00, 9:30 or 10:00 A.M.) depending on the type of discount card); there are cards reflecting special status of the passenger depending on age, special free passes awarded on the basis of medical and or social/economic reasons by local authorities; the blind, students and “families”. A family may mean many things too depending on the local authority and technically speaking means adults and children traveling together who may or may not be biologically related. Active London Underground and British railway staff also have special discount or free passes and a host of different valid periods of travel time are in force for those who have bought a “season” ticket varying from a week to one year. Woe to those who lose such a seasonal ticket!

There are a host of other considerations as well totaling close to one hundred different types of ticket to gain entry to the Underground and all station assistants had to pass a rigid test requiring familiarity with the fare system as well as the entire map of differing lines to be able to advise passengers. Most of these various tickets also required a valid photo I.D.s. The New York system for a hundred years was based on the equality of one token = one universal flat fare rate no matter who, when, where or how far you traveled. No control was ever necessary to validate the passenger with the type of entrance fare (the traditional token). This meant that the New York system never needed such a large staff of station assistants and cashier personnel or sophisticated gates and turnstiles to control the flow of traffic. Such control means that the number of passengers entering the system proceeds at a far slower rate in the London system and is subject to massive fraud, a serious problem that has been estimate at over £40,000,000 annually. In New York, fraud was only possible for the very agile who simply jumped over or crawled under the turnstiles when no one was looking. The third major difference is the variation in service during the rush hours.

The New York subway map is very difficult to read because the many lines have stations that are variously classified as local stops and others denominated as express stops. During the rush hours many trains that normally make all local stops during off-peak hours skip stations and make only express stops. This arrangement requires being able to distinguish the special between designations of double letters indicating local trains that stop at every station along the same line of track. (Express trains use single letters) For many tourists caught up in rush hours this has often meant having to read the “fine print” of the map under the pressure of the clock. The London traveler knows in advance that his train will stop at all stations along the route.

The fourth contrast is that of customer care. The station assistant in London have a primary duty to monitor the tickets at point of entry and also fulfill all the functions of tour guides, information desks map interpreters and hotel clerks as part of their duties. Any assistant working an 8 hour day at a busy London station is sure to be approached by hundreds of passengers and bombarded with questions, many of which could be ascertained by simply properly reading the map on a notice board and prominently displayed in the station or transmitted through a public address system at frequent intervals warning of delays or temporary suspensions of service.

Londoners expect this level of service as part of customer care yet British tourists must learn to defend for themselves and either sink or swim in the New York subway system. Most often they can get the information they need simply by asking a fellow passenger. There is no army of station assistants to provide them with personally tailored answers and instructions. They learn to fend for themselves. This too is part of the American mentality of relying on oneself or one’s neighbors rather than the government.

There is an almost total lack of elevators and escalators on the New York subway that are characteristic for many of the deep underground stations in London. Part of the reason is due to geography but there is also the unspoken assumption that elevators and escalators are a costly service and need not be provided to "pamper the public" who should not expect a special service for the disabled. This is all the more so in New York where service was always provided at the flat rate fare regardless of distance travelled with passengers being able to ride from one end of the city to the other. It was simply expected that the disabled could and should manage getting around in the subway with the help of friends and family.

There is also the aesthetic consideration of art in the two systems that stand in sharp contrast. London long ago won this contest with New York hands down. The Underground’s art-nouveau style posters, lettering and station signs, its brilliant red and blue logo and its map of the system – a masterpiece of popular cartography designed by Harry Beck in 1931 – are renowned the world over for their elegance, originality and humor. The London Underground Museum and Souvenir Shop sells hundreds of items such as historical posters and playing cards illustrating and advertising the system. The New York subway by contrast has produced nothing like them and as a result never achieved the same sense of being an integral part of the city’s cultural life and artistic creativity. The subway was simply regarded as a functional part of the city’s physical infrastructure.

Finally, London’s Underground provides a service of mass transit into the city center from Heathrow International airport that New York cannot match either from JFK or La Guardia. It also has luggage racks so that international travelers can move about during their journey without too many awkward collisions with others. New York cannot match this.

Both the subway and the underground are the result of an amalgamation of numerous rail lines that were incorporated over time into a single system and have suffered from long delayed maintenance operations due to budgetary restraints resulting in many miles of worn track, deteriorating infrastructure, especially signals and tunnel lighting, ageing trains and dilapidated stations. New York with its 468 stations, 658 track miles and over 242 million miles traveled each year outranks London where the corresponding figures are 240 stations, 249 track miles and only 40 million miles traveled. Part of the disparity in the two systems is that the difficult subsoil conditions in London South of the Thames made it possible to construct only one-tenth of the stations there. The other nine-tenths are North of the River but London’s population is evenly divided between the two halves.

Since May, 1997, the Metropolitan Transit Authority in charge of the New York Subway has adopted several far reaching plans that have altered the simple flat rate fare structure by automating turnstiles to accept a new “MetroCard”, a smart card even more sophisticated than the London Travel Card. MetroCard keeps a running tab of a customer’s “current balance account” of remaining journeys. The balance is adjusted each time a passenger swipes the card through the turnstile to enter the system. It allows customers to freely transfer between subway and bus lines.

One type of MetroCard can also take account for reduced rates of travel during off-peak hours, discount rates for old age pensioners and reduced multiple fares (6 rides for the price of 5). Here we have an example of New York borrowing from the London Underground system to benefit specific population groups and make travel cheaper during off-peak hours. A variant of the card allows for unlimited trips during a week or a month. The result has been a successful increase in riders and customer satisfaction!

Major capital investments and to higher policing of the New York subway, modern air-conditioning and the elimination of graffiti have made the trains and entire system more comfortable and pleasant. Other facilities have made the subway more “friendly” for the disabled. The result is that the tables have turned and many British tourists returning home from a stay in New York have written to London Underground or the tabloid press to demand similar facilities in their Underground. They have even used the old term “more civilized” to refer to the New York Subway!

During World War II, most notably in the seven month period From September 1940 to May, 1941, London was subject to the aerial “blitz” of the Luftwaffe that dropped 18,000 tons of high exoplosive bombs in 71 major raids on the city. Many of the underground stations were turned into nighttime air raid shelters providing accommodations and facilities for the civilian population. Without this strategy of civil defense, casualties in London would have been considerably greater. The “tube” played a heroic role unmatched by any other agency. In evaluating the role of civil defense workers in the tube throughout the Blitz, it is no exaggeration to paraphrase Churchill‘s words about the pilots of the RAF, “Never had so many owed so much to so few”. New Yorkers, as cynical as they are, may not openly express warm sentiments about the subway, but they could not live without it, a fact they have readily admitted during a few brief strikes.

Britain and America can both take pride in their mass transit systems and have learned to adopt what is best in each other’s way of doing things for their respective passengers. Each system is also a first line of strategic importance in the economy of two of the world’s greatest cities. Their common goal is continued safety and achievement of immunity from terrorist assaults. These remain the highest priorities of civil defense in the current struggle with Islamist extremism.

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