Monday, 9 April 2012

The Moscow Metro

The Moscow metro is the most beautiful underground system I have ever seen (which actually isn't saying much, but just pretend it is). You can tell how impressive people find it because many of the videos about it on YouTube are set to soaring, dramatic music (think 2001 Space Odyssey type stuff). I don't know if YouTube music is generally an accurate guide to reality, but in this case it definitely is.

Every station is unique, and they encompass a wide range of different artistic styles. That's the most pretentious I'm going to sound, because I know precisely nothing about art. But the point is that there really is art in the stations - a couple of years ago when the BBC made a programme about the history of Russian art, the presenter lay down on the floor of the Moscow metro to look at the mosaics in the ceiling. In general, to my untrained eyes, they have a lot of differently shaped light fittings, and a lot of mosaics and stained glass. For some reason they remind me of ancient Rome, possibly because I can't separate mosaics from Rome in my head, and possibly because Rome was another place where people lived in very cramped and none-too-nice apartments, but had some incredible public spaces.

So here, without further ado, is the a video of some of the stations. Whoever made it missed out most of the stations in the interests of time (both your time watching it, and, I imagine, his/her time traipsing round all the stations at the crack of dawn to get pictures when hardly anyone is there), but it gives you an idea:

I know what you're thinking - how do they keep the floors so shiny? The answer is, unsurprisingly, lots of polishing - very often you will see people sweeping or polishing the floors with those little machines that look like lawnmowers you sit on. And if you don't see them they will run you over, so it's best to keep a look out.

This isn't everything. Not content with beating the rest of the world in the beauty stakes, the Russians have also beaten everyone else in the how-frequently-trains-arrive stakes, and the price stakes. You know those displays on the Underground in London that tell you how long until the next train arrives (the ones that seem to think one minute lasts for five)? Well they don't need them here because you never have to wait that long for a train. The longest I have ever waited was three minutes. And the cost for my unlimited monthly pass? Around £7.50 (less than $12). Compare that with £78.40 for a student monthly Oyster pass. Considering Moscow is supposed to be one of the most expensive cities in the world (and the price of food here really is extortionate), I have no idea how they manage it.

[A lot of people seem to think this is still too much to pay. If you don't feel like paying, you can walk through the ticket gates, which will play a short tune that is also used by ice-cream vans in the UK, and then shut themselves. However, since the barrier is only knee high, you can jump over it no problem. If you are unlucky, the lady whose job it is to stop people doing this will blow a whistle, but movement is absolutely out of the question.] 

The only problem with the metro is getting down to it. For this, you need to open two sets of doors. You can see how the design process went - it's cold here and the stations are heated: we need doors. Ninety-nine percent of people are incapable of shutting doors: the doors must shut automatically. Every second the doors stay open we lose warmth and have to pay more for heating: the doors must shut as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, they tried to reduce t, the time the doors stay open, to zero, and to do this used some very heavy doors on some very tightly-wound springs. The result is a death trap. People here nearly always hold open the door for the next person, because if they don't it will smack the poor guy in the face as it accelerates backwards. You could knock someone out like this. If you are behind a very rude person who doesn't hold the door open, on no account try to catch the door - your arm may be wrenched out of its socket. Instead you need to treat it like obstacle course. Wait for it to swing back, run through afterwards. By now the rude person will have gone through the next set of doors. Wait for these to swing back too, and run through. If the door is shut and you need to open it, it is best to take a couple of steps back and ram it with your shoulder, as though you are trying to break down a door in a film. Standing next to it and pushing will just make you look like a fool. So, perhaps not ideal, but since the designers were right about people never shutting doors, it's difficult to see what else they could have done.

The authorities are still expanding the Metro - recently they announced five new stations to be opened by 2015, which would bring the total to 190. It is the world's second most-heavily-used rapid transit system after the Tokyo subway, carrying an average of 6.6 million people a day (2009 figure), versus around 2.9 million a day for the London Underground (2009) and 4.4 million in New York (2010). Plus it has a 99.96% timetable fulfillment, which is really throwing down the gauntlet, considering that in 2006 the average Metropolitan line commuter wasted 3 days, 10 hours and 25 minutes due to delays. Furthermore, if you are going to be delayed, wouldn't you rather be delayed in somewhere that looks like a palace?

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