From the oldest Underground system of London to the busiest today, in Beijing, subway transportation all began with the idea of freeing up congested streets to provide an option below the ground where people could quickly get to where they needed to go. Overcoming obstacles of engineering, funding, and wartime delays along the way, these feats of engineering forged forward.
As these subway transit systems progressed, trains were electrified using what is called a third rail. Though things have changed since that very first passenger ride, the history of transit in metro populated areas remains rich and interesting.
Let’s take a look at nine of the oldest and most influential subway systems in the world starting with the fastest and most modern line and finishing up by spotlighting the oldest subway in the world.
9. Beijing Subway
Age: Opened October 1, 1969
Number of Stops Distance Covered: 370 stations with 377.9 miles of lines
Number of passengers per year: 3.78 billion
Beijing may be one of the newer systems worldwide but is the oldest in China, and it is one of the busiest and most bustling subway in the entire world with an average of about 10 million riders who rely on its lines every day.
These now bustling stations had been planned to be built nearly two decades earlier and was intended to be used solely for defense and not as a means of transporting the public, but the Great Famine, which lasted from 1958 to 1962, literally stopped their building progress in their tracks. When it was finally opened to the general population, riders took to the idea quickly and haven’t slowed down yet.
8. Moscow Metro
Age: Opened May 15, 1935
Number of Stops Distance Covered: 245 stations with 260.3 miles of lines
Number of passengers per year: 2.4 billion
If wars had not delayed the progress, this transit line would have been bustling long before its time as plans date back to the Roman Empire when Tsars ruled. Once the Moscow transit system was opened and fitting with the governmental power, Stalin is said to have been the first passenger aboard.
The Moscow subway stations display some of the most beautiful works of architectural design, some designed with frescoes, mosaics, and even chandeliers or other grand underground lighting features that make you forget you are in the darkness below the earth’s surface.
7. Tokyo Subway
Age: Opened December 30, 1927
Number of Stops Distance Covered: 285 stations with 189 miles of lines
Number of passengers per year: 8.7 million per day
Perhaps the most well-mannered underground system of fast underground transportation, at least according to its Subway Manners Guidebook, which advises riders to silence their phones and to also refrain from talking while aboard. Considerations for the security of riders goes beyond good habits.
During the morning rush, the transit line even offers women-only carriages in an effort to promote safety. With all their on-board thoughtfulness toward other passengers, however, rush hours when the trams are crowded is nothing to mess around with. There are workers on hand known as people pushers, in Japanese they are referred to as oshiya, who help fill the trains by physically guiding or, possibly if you ask some, shoving passengers aboard.
6. Buenos Aires Underground
Age: Opened December 1, 1913
Number of Stops Distance Covered: 104 stations with 38.1 miles of lines
Number of passengers per year: 1.2 million per day
This metro transit system is the oldest of its kind in Latin America. Perhaps pride for tradition is partially to blame for how long it took to change when it came to the type of train cars being used.
The original wooden carriages that were in operation for about a century were only more recently replaced in 2013 with more modern options inspired by Chinese technology that has made riding the Buenos Aires Underground so much more comfortable. Riders now enjoy air conditioning, better lighting, and more relaxed seating as well as security cameras.
5. New York City Subway
Age: Opened October 27, 1904
Country: United States of America
Number of Stops Distance Covered: 472 stations with 850 miles of tracks
Number of passengers per year: 1.7 billion
The bustling New York Subway System is considered to be the largest in the world and is one of the few that is always open, 24 hours a day. It truly is serving the City That Never Sleeps. Though it is one of the oldest in the world, it was actually several years prior, 34 years to be exact, that the idea of a transit system beneath the surface of the earth was developing, with a pneumatic tube style of transport.
The inventor behind this plan was a man by the name of Alfred Ely Beach. Obviously, the pneumatic idea did not take off as Beach had hoped, but the New York Subway System went on to be a continued success.
4. Paris Métro
Age: July 19, 1900
Number of Stops Distance Covered: 300 stations with 133 miles of track
Number of passengers per year: 1.5 billion
Like other feats of architecture, such as the Eiffel Tower, which was built for a previous World’s Fair held in the City of Lights, the first train line was unveiled during the Paris World’s Fair Exposition Universelle. However, the train made its entrance in a downplayed fashion.
Since Art Nouveau was the style of the day during the turn of the century, the stations were originally designed to reflect this with the art style carried over still today in several of the boarding platform entrances. The artist was Hector Guimard who submitted his designs as part of a contest. Today, three of the most beautiful artistic entrances or exits that remain can be found in Porte Dauphine, Place Sainte-Opportune, and Châtelet.
3. Glasgow Subway
Age: December 14, 1896
Number of Stops Distance Covered: 15 stations with 6.5 miles of lines
Number of passengers per year: 39,980 per day
The Glasgow system is unique in that they cover a relatively small length of lines. Also, the tracks used were originally part of a cable railway system. Outside of London, the Glasgow Subway is the only major transit system that operates below the ground in the United Kingdom.
Unlike London’s Underground, despite its somewhat deceptive name that would imply the cumulative expanse of tracks is all below the surface, the entire Glasgow system does operate its trains underneath the ground.
2. Budapest Metro
Age: Opened in 1896
Number of Stops Distance Covered: 48 stations with 24.5 miles of lines
Number of passengers per year: 409 million
The Budapest Metro boasts being the first underground electric train line on the European Continent. Of course, it falls in line as the second one when compared to the entire world. The year the metro transit system opened, Hungary was celebrating its one-thousandth anniversary, so this subway transit line was dubbed the Millennium Underground.
This original stretch of the transit lines is still used today as the yellow line, M1. If you visit Budapest today, you can ride on the original Millennium system, making 11 stops along the route.
1. London Underground
Age: Opened January 10, 1863
Number of Stops Distance Covered: 270 stations with 250 miles of lines
Number of passengers per year: 1.3 billion
The beginning of subway transit successfully began in London. The London Underground is often referred to as the “Tube” which refers to the circular boring machine and construction style that made the transit line design more efficient and possible. Overcrowding and tight, unsanitary living conditions of the city and a need for people to get to where work was available made the need for additional means of transportation a vital necessity of the time.
Engineering marvels made underground travel a reality. First, tunnels had to be dug. The clay-like soil of England made it possible for early excavators to dig tunnels with dirt that would harden along the way. Once the first tunnels were dug, the underground pathways were used for pedestrians. Later, steam trains would be used before they would be electrified allowing them to run more efficiently and much cleaner. While its official name infers that it is underground, more than half of its track actually runs above ground.