Celebrating Madrid’s Metro

Celebrating Madrid’s Metro

This year marks the 100th birthday of Madrid’s metro system, and the city is celebrating the occasion. Stations are being decorated, special exhibitions mounted, and festive trains displayed. And I think that we all should celebrate the metro—not just in Madrid, but everywhere—for it is one of those rare human inventions which has worked so well that it has become invisible. Though so often overlooked, the metro system of any city serves as both spine and arteries to the urban body: supporting and guiding development while moving the stuff of life from place to place.  Chances are that, if you live in a city, you depend on the metro many times a week: to commute, to see friends, to run errands. Yet we only stop to notice this subterranean network when, for whatever reason, it stops working.

Like so many inventions in our modern world, the metro has been integrated so seamlessly into our lives that it can be difficult to realize what an enormous engineering triumph it represents. Thousands of workers had to tunnel through hundreds of miles of solid earth in order to lay down tracks and build stations; and the resulting network of subterranean passages has to be used every day, all year, without any cave-ins, collapses, explosions, asphyxiations—in short, while being absolutely safe and reliable. As a result of this collaboration of politicians, architects, engineers, designers, construction workers, and too many others to name, I can walk out of my apartment, down a flight of stairs, and then ascend on the other side of a city. For a very reasonable price.

Madrid’s metro is, in my opinion, especially impressive. Opened 56 years after London’s underground, 19 years after Paris’s métro, and 10 years after New York’s subway, Madrid’s metro has grown to become the ninth largest network in the world (and it is the network with the second-most escalators and elevators, only surpassed by Shanghai). The first line stretched a mere three and a half kilometers, traveling at 15 mph between eight stations. Nowadays, the network has 12 lines, 302 stations, and covers almost 300 kilometers. Very few places in the central zone of the city are more than a fifteen minute walk to the nearest metro. I am lucky to live near two of the most useful lines: the original Line 1, which goes through the heart of the city, and the circular Line 6, which makes a giant loop around the outside.

The entire sprawling network

Counting repeat rides, over two million people take the metro every day—well over half the city’s population. Notwithstanding all this, the metro remains clean, timely, and dependable. After four years of living in this city, I can recall very few times when I have been frustrated at the metro service (a constant occurrence in NYC). True, Madrid’s metro does not have a strong personality. It has none of the gritty charm of the New York subway or the endearing retro-ness of London’s tube. The metro is not especially futuristic, quaint, or beautiful. But it works—without screeching and howling, without unpleasant smells, without delays or derailments.

True to form, the metro’s celebrations have also been quiet, efficient, and unobstructive. They have largely consisted of decorating Metro Line 1, the so-called Centennial Line, with antique photos of the metro’s early days—riders in top-hats and trench coats, besmattered workmen excavating the tunnels, old-fashioned entryways amid a cityscape filled with vintage automobiles. One of the more amusing of these is of the King Alfonso XIII inaugurating the metro: the king stands in a pinstripe suit with his hands folded on a cane, a top hat hanging from its end, wearing a bipartite mustache; and surrounding him are dozens of men dressed and groomed identically. Fashion was very strict in those days. Apparently the current King Felipe VI has been so good as to repeat the voyage taken by his great grandfather.

For those who wish to get a deeper sense of the metro’s history provided by the photographs, there are two free museum spaces run by the metro: the Estación de Chamberí and the Nave de Motores.

Chamberí was one of the first stations opened on Line 1. But like the City Hall station on New York’s Line 6, it was eventually closed down because the station’s curve was too sharp to be used with the newer, longer trains. As such, it became something of a time capsule, preserving the appearance of the first generation of train stations. Unlike the City Hall station, Chamberí was never designed to be an architectural showcase; it is simple and functional. Upon entering one passes the antique ticket-collecting booths, and descends to the old platform. Trains on Line 1 still scream past every five minutes or so.

When I arrived a guide was giving a free tour. Apparently, the station has a reputation for being haunted. You see, like many metro stations it was used as a bomb shelter during the Spanish Civil War, and the souls of victims are said to manifest occasionally to frighten visitors. Well, I did not see anything supernatural, but I did see many charming old advertisements—for cafés, hair gels, jewelry shops, and purgative mineral water. Few things are so evocative of the past as an ad for a product that no longer exists. These are the real ghosts.

The other museum is, by chance, right in my neighborhood: the Nave de Motores. This is a cavernous building made to house three giant diesel engines, which used to provide power to the metro system. Just as the contemporary power grid was too feeble for the first generation of trains along the Hudson line, so Madrid’s electricity infrastructure did not support the power necessary to propel the metro. Thus, these engines had to be built especially for the purpose.

The Nave de Motores, in Pacífico

They are gargantuan contraptions, about half the size of a house. For a time this was the most powerful power plant in Spain. I cannot even fathom the noise they would create, much less the amount of fuel they burned. The current produced by these mammoth machines had to be converted by another array of motors before being wired down to the tracks below the station for use by the metro. On a balcony overlooking the engine space there is a control panel, where dozens of little gauges and meters informed the engineers of the state of affairs. (Apparently it is possible to sign up for a hard-hat tour of the tunnels below, but I cannot find the link on the metro’s website.)

This month (May 17 to June 15) there is a special exhibition in the Nave de Motores, and the opening hours have been extended. The massive wheels have been decorated with lights, and informative panels have been put up all around the space. There are antique ticket machines on display, as well as different generations of metro tickets. One can even put on virtual reality goggles and look around a metro stop of the future. Videos of scenes from metro life are projected from the ceiling onto a table, while television monitors play informative mini-documentaries about the network. I was particularly impressed to see the testing and repair center, a huge warehouse where all the equipment is checked and fixed by a team of engineers and mechanics.

There were even a couple models on display, one of the tunnel-boring machine used to chew out the subterranean passages, and one of Sol’s metro station (one of the largest in the network). These miniatures help to give a taste of just how vast is the scale on which the network is built. Whole mountains of material had to be moved to dig out what is, in effect, another city underneath the city above.

The city beneath the city.

Work continues on the metro. Many of the lines have been adapted to allow for cell-phone service, which is much appreciated. Two years ago, Line 1 was closed for a few months for repairs; and Line 2 was recently closed for the same reason. (It has just reopened.) Every night, from 2:00 to 5:30 in the morning, the metro is closed down for repairs. It strikes me as strange that in Madrid, where people go out all night, the metro stops working, while in New York, where most people are home by 2:00, the subway runs all night. Maybe this is why Madrid’s metro runs so much more smoothly; but it is rather irritating on a Friday night.

The network has, for the most part, been entirely updated and transformed from its early years. However, one strange holdover remains. When the system was constructed, Madrid’s roads were like England’s: people drove on the left. Though the road orientation was switched in 1924, the metro kept is left-ward orientation, and so the trains always approach the station from the right as you are facing the train.

Madrid’s metro, like that of any city, serves a vital economic function: many people would not be able to get to their jobs without it. Aside from its economic function, however, the metro also serves as a center for social life. One becomes a native madrileño while riding on the metro: smushed up against bodies, eyeing strangers with anxiety or curiosity, respecting other people’s personal space with navigating the public space of underground transport. It is a place owned by everyone and no one, and so requires special rules to use. Don’t take up more than one seat. Take off your backpack. Give up your seat to the pregnant, the elderly, or the disabled. And don’t be a creep.

One also becomes socialized in more elusive ways. For example, the level of eye-contact considered acceptable on the Madrid metro can be unnerving for an American. Many newcomers to the city report feeling stared at. More than likely, they are just not used to the constant surveillance of Spanish city life—from shop windows, park benches, and balconies—and so misinterpret disinterested glances as either aggressive or suggestive, or both. Adapting to Spanish life means adapting to different standards of proximity and scrutiny. And much of this adaptation happens on the metro.

The metro can be a place of danger. Pickpockets are common, and their roaming hands are apt to relieve the unwary traveler of his wallet. It can also be an aggressive place. The only fight that I ever witnessed in Madrid was on the metro, between a young hothead and a homeless man. But the community quickly intervened, tearing the two kicking combatants apart. And this is the secret to the metro: that the citizens take an active role, however subtle or even invisible, in keeping it a safe place for everyone.

We can also ride the metro to get a taste of culture. In several stations there are miniature libraries, bibliometros (though I’ve never seen anyone actually use them). And apart from the decorations in some of the stations—such as in the stations of Paco de Lucía, Goya, and the Estación del Arte—there is the music. Hardly a station in the entire network is without its performer, singing and dancing in a busy corner, their hat covered in coins. Other musicians ride the metro, going from car to car, playing the pan-flute, singing duets, or rapping over a recorded beat. Admittedly this is not always welcome. Most of the time when I am on the metro I am trying to read. But city life is intrusive, in good ways and bad, and it isn’t for the rider to choose when and which.

Indeed, you might say that the metro represents Madrid in microcosm—both the frustration and the joy. There is the uncomfortable crowding, the long and wearisome commute, and the occasional bad apple. But just as often there is the snippet of overheard conversation, the random acts of kindness, and most of all the quiet assurance that you can get where you need to go.

So I say we should don our caps to the Madrid metro. We are lucky to have a system that is extensive, clean, cheap, and reliable. Take a ride on Line One. Visit the two free metro museums. And, most importantly, don’t be a creep.

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Review: 722 Miles, a History of the NYC Subway System

Review: 722 Miles, a History of the NYC Subway System

722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York722 Miles: The Building of the Subways and How They Transformed New York by Clifton Hood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The seven train slowed to a stop in the Mets-Willets Point station and a distorted voice crackled onto the PA system: “Last stop, last stop everybody, this is the last stop, please exit the train.” Normally the seven goes to Flushing; but today it terminated one stop earlier because of track work. With a chorus of sighs and groans the passengers shuffled out and pushed down the stairs to the buses waiting on the street, a stopgap solution used when the subway is shut down.

The buses were much smaller than the train, of course, so we had to pack ourselves in tight. When the final passenger squeezed in, the doors shut and we started moving, throwing nearly everyone off balance. Most people were silent, but behind me a man began talking: “Honestly, this is unbelievable—unbelievable! Every week, track work, signal problems, delays. Every week another problem. And they keep raising the fare! We pay more money, more money, and the service gets worse and worse. These damn MTA people, they don’t even use the subway. You know who’s on the MTA board? Yoko Ono. Yoko Ono hasn’t taken the subway once in her life!”

Except for the Yoko Ono part (I don’t know where he got that from), the man was right: service on the subways is getting worse, even though the fares keep going up. The quality has gotten so bad lately as to approach a crisis. This summer we have had two derailments, and a track fire that sent several people to the hospital. Less dramatic, but no less important, are the delays: signal problems and overcrowding cause constant tardiness. On some lines, the trains are late more often than on time. Since nearly 6 million people use the subway per day, this is a serious political liability. True to form, the politicians have done what they do best: point fingers at each other. The mayor blames the governor, and vice versa, until finally governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency regarding the subways.

Living in Madrid has given me a new perspective on the NYC subway. Before I moved I had just assumed that, by their very nature, subways were dirty, uncomfortable places. The trains screech and wail on the tracks, and jerk back and forth when they pull into the station. The stations themselves are sweaty, claustrophobic, and full of garbage and rats; and the subway cars are always packed to the breaking point. But in Madrid I discovered that a metro can be clean, sleek, and comfortable—and, most surprisingly, cheap. For comparison, a monthly ticket on the Metro North, the railroad from my town in Westchester to Manhattan, costs almost $300; and a monthly subway pass costs an additional $120. An equivalent ticket in Madrid, including both commuter rail and the metro, costs about 100€—one-fourth the price for a cleaner, safer, and better service.

Subway Interior
Modern subway interior

I may sound like I’m disparaging the NYC subway, but really I have a great affection for it. The subway has a gritty, industrial aesthetic that I find strongly appealing. And despite the frustrations, the subway represents what is best about New York: a place where people of every background, doing every activity imaginable, are thrown together in a tight space and manage—just barely—to avoid killing each other. Just the other day, for example, I witnessed a woman violently push herself onto the subway, shoving everyone out of her way to get to a seat. As soon as she reached her prize a man rightly began castigating her, and a loud argument ensued. Luckily, another man began preaching in a loud voice, drowning out the argument and restoring a tense truce as we were given a sermon about the perils of hellfire. I simply don’t witness things like this in Madrid.

For this combination of reasons—a mixture of admiration and despair—I set out to investigate the NYC subway. First I visited the New York Transit Museum, and then I read this book.

The New York Transit Museum has two locations, a small shop in Grand Central Station, and their museum in Brooklyn. The shop in Grand Central has rotating exhibits in half the store. The latest one is about the history of the seven train, which runs from Manhattan to Queens. This line was recently extended to the far West Side, with the opening of the first new station in twenty-five years: Hudson Yards. The museum in Brooklyn, near Borough Hall, is in an old subway station. In addition to the historical photos and the information on display, the museum has examples of all the turnstiles ever used in the subway; and on the old platform there are antique subway cars, going back even to when they were made of wood. (Wooden cars got a bad reputation after the Malbone Street Wreck in 1918, a terrible accident that killed 93 people. The wooden cars splintered apart upon impact.)

Wooden Subway
Wooden subway cars

If you go visit this museum, I recommend a little stop along the way. The New York City subway was officially opened in 1904. The showpiece of the new system was the City Hall station, located right under the seat of the city government. This station was lavish: decorated with ornate tile-work designed by the Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino, using arches based on medieval Spanish churches. Beautiful as it is, the station had to be abandoned when the subway switched to longer cars. The short length of the platform, and the sharp angle of the turn, rendered the famous station useless. Now it sits, unused and empty, below City Hall. You can still catch a glimpse of this station, however, if you take the six train down to the Brooklyn Bridge station, and then stay on the train when it curves around to go uptown. The subway screeches horribly as it turns, but it is an eerie and fascinating experience to see the old abandoned station.

(I couldn’t get any good pictures myself, but you can find some in the gallery here. The Transit Museum does occasional tours of the City Hall Station, which you can find here.)

This book was the perfect accompaniment to the museum. Written by a professional historian, 722 Miles is, I believe, the most informative book on the market about the subway’s history.* As do many books by academics, this one began its life as a doctoral dissertation. It must have been substantially revised, however, since it is mostly free from academic stuffiness and scholarly squabbles. Hood casts a wide net, focusing on three interrelated aspects of the subway’s history: the political wrangling involved in getting it built, the role it played in the development of NYC, and the engineering methods and challenges of the subway. No engineer himself, the latter aspect is fairly basic; but the politics and the urban history are quite well done.

Old Interior
Antique interior design

The reader may be surprised (or maybe not) to learn that the subway has always been plagued with political wrangling and controversy. It was born in an era that saw major government spending and ownership as antithetical to sound business practices. But since private capital has always proven insufficient to infrastructure on this scale, the subway has been a public-private hybrid since its inception, with the state gradually taking on more and more responsibility. One reason the state had to step in was because the five-cent fare became a political stumbling block, something the public regarded as a sacred right; and so the fare remained a nickel even when the cost of a ride to the business was twice that amount.

Old Interior 2
Another old interior design

Originally the subway system was owned and operated by three separate entities: Interborough Rapid Transit (INT), Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT), and the Independent Subway System (IND). A relic of this origin is preserved in the subway’s odd numbering and lettering system: the numbered lines were the INT lines, and the lettered lines BRT and IND. These three were consolidated under city ownership by LaGuardia in 1940. From that year onward, there was very little development or even proper maintenance of the subways, in part thanks to the nickel fare. Another contributing factor was Robert Moses—the villain in every New York City story—who commanded most of the federal money available during the New Deal to build highways and bridges, diverting it from subways. Later, in 1968, the subway system was transferred to the newly created Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), by governor Nelson Rockefeller. This did little to help its finances, apparently, since by the early 80s the subway was a frightful, rundown, dangerous place. (Photos from that era have a haunting, apocalyptic beauty.)

The original purpose of the subway wasn’t just to serve already built-up areas in the city. Rather, several lines were run into undeveloped areas in the hopes of relieving population density. When the seven line was built in Queens, for example, it was running into almost pristine farmland and wild fields, where many still went to hunt fowl. It didn’t take long for this land to be urbanized. The muckraker Jacob Riis played a role in this development strategy, since it was he who documented the horrors of overcrowded tenements in lower Manhattan, prompting progressives to see the subway as a tool to make the city more livable and clean. This was done under the influence of Ebenezer Howard, the urban planner who originated the idea of the ‘garden city’ (which Jane Jacobs later opposed).

Turnstiles
Chronological turnstiles

Aside from the drier history, there are some fun facts in this book. The first underground train in New York was, I learned, not a proper subway at all, but a pneumatic train built in secret. This was the idea of Alfred E. Beach, who tunneled under Manhattan under the pretense of building a pneumatic parcel delivery system, to avoid the opposition of the corrupt legislature. In 1870 he unveiled his new train, which caused quite a sensation, despite being totally impractical for longer trips (Beach’s train only went a few blocks). I also learned that the tunnel that takes the seven train under the East River, on its journey from Manhattan to Queens, is called the Steinway Tunnel, because it was originally funded and promoted by that scion of the famous piano company. He was interested because he had a factory on the other side of the river.

This book was originally published in 1993, and it shows its age. This was a particularly bad time for the subway, when it was slowly recovering from its low point in the 1980s, and the book ends on a bleak note. Until fairly recently, the subway has been making quite a comeback since then. Just as many people are using the subway nowadays as they did in its so-called “Golden Age,” the 1920s and 30s, which amounts to almost 2 billion per year. The subways are no longer covered in graffiti and plagued by crime. Instead of posters warning passengers about mugging, they discourage ‘manspreading’ and promote basic etiquette. Viral videos also encourage passengers not to eat, clip their toenails, put their bags on seats, or to try to get on the train before other passengers have gotten off—a big improvement. We still have rats, though.

Even more impressive, the subway is building once again. Delayed for nearly 100 years, the Second Avenue line has just begun opening stations, which will relieve the overused Lexington Avenue line. We also have wifi in all the subway stations now.

Nevertheless, there are some serious problems to fix. The most daunting is to replace the subway’s signal system. This system is badly out of date. On some lines, they are still using equipment that dates from the 1930s. Having obsolete analog signals means that there are frequent malfunctions; and even when working properly, trains cannot safely run close to each other, since the old signals are not precise, which leads to overcrowding and more delays. This may seem like an easy fix, but it is estimating that it will take at least until 2045, and probably even later, to refurbish the whole system.

Despite these problems, and despite the expensive fares and the shrieking cars, I am still optimistic about the NYC subway. To me, the subway is a symbol of the entire city: dirty, grimy, overpriced, overcrowded, part worn out and part sleekly modern, where people of all sorts come to strive and struggle and suffer in a narrow space. New York simply wouldn’t be New York if it didn’t include frustration—and garbage—and rats—and loud energy; and the subway has all that in abundance.


*I’m not sure where the number 722 comes from. According to the Transit Museum, there are 656 miles of mainline track and 842 miles total. This number will be rising some more with the completion of the Second Avenue line.

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