Which city has the longest metro system?

Is Seoul the world's longest metro? Image: Getty.

This week we're taking a look at the surprisingly complicated question of which city has the largest metro in the world. As with so often with these things, the answer is: it depends how you count.

Yesterday we did number of stations. Today, we're measuring by route length.

You'd think, by restricting ourselves to a simple, one-dimensional numerical measure, that working out which city had the longest metro system in the world would be simple, wouldn't you?


Ha. No such luck. This time (spoilers), the root of the confusion lies in the vexed question of what counts as one metro network.

One oft-cited candidate for the world’s longest metro network is the one on Seoul, which only opened in 1974 but by 2013 included 987.5km of route on 18 lines. That's pretty much enough to get you from London to Marseille. No other city comes close.

So why is this question remotely contentious? Because it's surprisingly unclear whether that metro should be counted as one system or several. It includes lines 1-9, the subway proper, which is operated by the Seoul Metropolitan Rapid Transit Corporation and the Seoul Metro (with which it'll merge next year).

But it also includes routes run by national rail operator Korail. Most contentiously, it includes lines run by satellite cities, such as the Incheon Transit Corporation, which operates trains in, well, Incheon.

 

 

An extract from a map of Seoul's complete metro network created by Wikipedia User IRTC1015. You can see the terrifyingly complicated full version here.

All these operators provide a single integrated network – but it's still the equvialent of measuring the London Underground by counting Overground, DLR, and so forth, or of counting the RER and Transilien as part of the Paris Metro. We are in danger, in other words, of comparing apples and oranges.

So what if you try to stick to apples alone? Look at lines 1-9 alone, and the network measures only 311km.


Which is quite a lot smaller and probably not the biggest in the world at all.

Other candidates for the top slot can’t promise the 900km+ of route that the wider definitions of the Seoul metro do, but the figures they do cite are probably less contentious.

One is the Shanghai Metro, which runs to 548km and counting. In 2013, it achieved the distinction of becoming the first Chinese metro network to cross provincial boundaries, when line 11 was extended into the satellite city of Kunshan in neighbouring Jiangsu province.

There's talk of extending it further, to connect up with metro systems of the cities of Suzhou and Wuxi, both of which are 100km away or more, too. Not bad given that Shanghai didn't open its first metro line until 1993.

It isn't the only monster subway system that's sprouted in China recently either. The Beijing Subway, first opened in 1969, is the country's oldest, so it got a bit of a head start on Shanghai. Today, it runs 18 lines, serves 319 stations, and stretches for 527km.

Schematic map of Beijing's subway, created by Wikipedia Users Ran and Hat600.

This is another one of those networks which has more than one operator: this one's split between the state-owned Beijing Mass Transit Railway Operation Corp (15 lines) and the Beijing MTR Corp (a joint venture with the Hong Kong transit authorities, which operates three). Between them, in 2014, they carried 3.4bn passengers.

One interesting feature of Beijing's metro is its station names, which, translated literally, mean things like Smooth Justice, Heavenly Peace Gate and (less appealingly) Cholera Camp. So, there you go.

Here, best we can tell, with all the caveats about different cities playing by different rules here, is the top 10 of metros proper:

  • Shanghai Metro – 548km
  • Beijing Subway – 527km
  • London Underground – 402km
  • New York Subway – 373km
  • Seoul Subway – 332km
  • Moscow Metro – 328km
  • Madrid Metro – 294km
  • Guangzhou Metro – 240km
  • Mexico City Metro – 227km
  • Nanjing Metro – 224km

Tomorrow: we try to count passenger numbers and things get really complicated.

Research: Suren Prasad.

 
 
 
 

The tube that’s not a tube: What exactly is the Northern City line?

State of the art: a train on the Northern City Line platforms at Moorgate. Image: Haydon Etherington

You may never have used it. You may not even know that it’s there. But in zones one and two of the London Underground network, you’ll find an oft-forgotten piece of London’s transport history.

The Northern City line is a six-stop underground route from Moorgate to Finsbury Park. (It’s officially, if confusingly, known as the Moorgate line.) But, unlike other underground lines, it not part of Transport for London’s empire, and is not displayed on a normal tube map. Two of the stations, Essex Road and Drayton Park, aren’t even on the underground network at all.

The line has changed hands countless times since its creation a century ago. It now finds itself hiding in plain sight – an underground line, not part of the Underground. So why exactly is the Northern City line not part of the tube?

The Northern City line, pictured in dotted beige. Source: TfL.

As with many so many such idiosyncrasies, the explanation lies in over a century’s worth of cancellations and schemes gone awry. The story starts in 1904, when the private Great Northern Railways, which built much of what is now the East Coast Main Line, built the line to provide trains coming from the north of London with a terminus in the City. This is why the Northern City line, unlike a normal tube line, has tunnels wide enough to be used by allow mainline trains.

Eventually, though, Great Northern decided that this wasn’t such a bright idea after all. It mothballed plans to connect the Northern City up to the mainline, leaving it to terminate below Finsbury Park, scrapped electrification and sold the line off to Metropolitan Railways – owners of, you guessed it, the Metropolitan line.

Metropolitan Railways had big plans for the Northern City line too: the company wanted to connect it to both Waterloo & City and Circle lines. None of the variants on this plan ever happened. See a theme?

The next proposed extensions, planned in the 1930s once London Underground had become part of the domain of the (public sector) London Passenger Transport Board, was the Northern Heights programme. This would have seen the line would connected up with branch lines across north London, with service extended to High Barnet, Edgware and Alexandra Palace: essentially, as part of the Northern line. The plans, for the main part, were cancelled in the advent of the Second World War.

The Northern Heights plan. The solid green lines happened, the dotted ones did not. Image: Rob Brewer/Wikimedia Commons.

What the war started, the Victoria line soon finished. The London Plan Working Party Report of 1949 proposed a number of new lines and extensions: these included extension of the Northern City Line to Woolwich (Route J) and Crystal Palace (Route K). The only one of the various schemes to happen was Route C, better known today as the Victoria line, agreed in the 1950s and opening in the 1960s. The new construction project cannibalised the Northern City Line’s platforms at Finsbury Park, and from 1964 services from Moorgate terminated one stop south at Drayton Park.

In 1970, the line was briefly renamed the Northern Line (Highbury Branch), but barely a year later plans were made to transfer it to British Rail, allowing it to finally fulfil its original purpose.


Before that could happen, though, the line became the site of a rather more harrowing event. In 1975, the deadliest accident in London Underground history took place at Moorgate: a southbound train failed to stop, instead ploughing into the end of the tunnel. The crash killed 43 people. The authorities responded with a major rehaul of safety procedure; Moorgate station itself now has unique timed stopping mechanisms.

The last tube services served the Northern City Line in October 1975. The following year, it reopened as part of British Rail, receiving trains from a variety of points north of London. Following privatisation, it’s today run by Govia Thameslink as the Great Northern route, served mainly by suburban trains from Hertford and Welwyn Garden City.

Nowadays, despite a central location and a tube-like stopping pattern, the line is only really used for longer-scale commutes: very few people use it like a tube.

Only 811,000 and 792,000 people each year enter and exit Essex Road and Drayton Park stations respectively. These stations would be considered the fifth and sixth least used in the tube network – only just beating Chorleywood in Hertfordshire. In other words, these usage stats look like those for a station in zone seven, not one in Islington.

One reason for this might be a lack of awareness that the line exists at all. The absence from the tube map means very few people in London will have heard of it, let alone ever used it.

Another explanation is rather simple: the quality of service. Despite being part and parcel of the Oyster system, it couldn’t be more different from a regular tube. The last (and only) time I used the line, it ran incredibly slowly, whilst the interior looked much more like a far-flung cross-country train than it does a modern underground carriage.

Waiting for Govia. Image: Haydon Etherington.

But by far the biggest difference from TfL is frequency. The operators agreed that trains would run between four and six times an hour, which in itself is fine. However, this is Govia Thameslink, and in my experience, the line was plagued by cancellations and delays, running only once in the hour I was there.

To resolve this, TfL has mooted taking the line over itself. In 2016, draft proposals were put forward by Patrick McLoughlin, then the transport secretary, and then mayor Boris Johnson, to bring "northern services... currently operating as part of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise" into TfL's control by 2021.

But, in a story that should by now be familiar, Chris Grayling scrapped them. At least it’s in keeping with history.