» Virtually every new metro or subway train purchased by transit agencies over the past ten years has been built with open gangways—allowing passengers to walk from one end of the train to the other. Except in the United States.
New York City’s Second Avenue Subway project, which in its first phase will bring transit service north from 63rd to 96th Streets in Manhattan, will provide many benefits for commuters, offering three new stations and much easier access from the Upper East Side to western Midtown. It will reduce congestion on the Lexington Avenue Subway (4/5/6) by as much as 13 percent—a boon for commuters on the single-most-used transit corridor in the country. And it will respond to the simple fact that New York City is growing quickly; it has added half a million people since 2000 and continues to expand.
But the Second Avenue Subway project has its issues—notably the fact that at $4.5 billion, it’s outrageously expensive given its 1.7-mile length. Given these construction costs, few projects of this magnitude are possible. So what alternatives do congested, growing cities like New York have to increase the capacity of their transit systems?
All around the world, cities investing in their metros—a term I’ll use here to describe systems like New York’s Subway, the Bay Area BART, and others—are choosing to include open gangways on their trains.* It’s a simple concept to understand: Basically, people who board a train are able to walk from one end of the train to the other without opening doors or stepping outside of the train.
Open gangways provide a number of advantages: One, they expand capacity by allowing riders to use the space that typically sits empty between cars. This added capacity means that a metro line can carry more people with trains of the same length. Two, it allows passengers to redistribute themselves throughout the train while the vehicle is moving, reducing problems associated with many people boarding in the same doorway, such as slow exiting times and poorly distributed standees. Three, it increases safety at times of low ridership by increasing the number of “eyes” in the train. There are no obvious downsides.
Open gangways offer passengers the benefit of an improved, less congested, and safer environment as compared to trains with individual cars, the standard you’re used to if you live in the U.S. And it’s no surprise that transit agencies all around the world are choosing open-gangway trains for virtually every new vehicle purchase. This is documented in the following map, where green cities represent places where the metro systems run at least some trains that are all open-gangway. Those that are red do not. Click on the map for a higher-resolution, larger version.
I used the World Metro Database to help me create the map below and the table at the end of this article, but the Database is out of date and, in some places, incorrect and as a result, I collected the information shown here one agency at a time. The vast majority of metro systems are investing in trains with open gangways.
Yet American transit agencies have ignored the concept. New metro trains have been or are being purchased in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, among others, but they all continue to be built with individualized cars, with no open gangways. It’s as if the agencies simply have not gotten the message. Only Honolulu, which has a new purpose-built metro currently under construction, will adopt this technology. Perhaps the other agencies will get the message once that system opens in two years.
I wrote about this issue six years ago, interviewing representatives from New York and Washington transit agencies to ask why their new trains did not feature open gangways. The responses were anemic: In Washington, a spokesman told me that the agency had “no plans to change it just to change it,” as if the concept of open gangways was frivolous. In New York, I was told that open gangways would only be possible if “we have a budget for Research and Design for an entirely new subway car.”
Others have suggested that the handicap in the U.S. is that transit agencies have specifications that make them incapable of handling such vehicles. Some say that U.S. agencies need trains with short cars, but the Paris region features a commuter train with open gangways with cars that are shorter than even the notoriously short Chicago L vehicles (43’5″ versus 48′). Some say that the maintenance expense would be too high to transition to these trains (since maintenance facilities might have to be altered to handle cars that are permanently affixed to one another), but many of the European agencies, with metro systems just as old as those in the U.S., have been able to accommodate the trains in their facilities, probably with the assistance of the train manufacturers. Some suggest that these trains would be more expensive, but evidence suggests otherwise.**
London, which has resisted adding open gangways to its “deep tube” fleet (it has such trains already on its “sub-surface” lines) because of issues with tight curves, has recently come around to the concept. In its future metro vehicle feasibility study, London found that open gangways were not only possible, allowing walk-through trains, but that they would increase train capacity by up to 10 percent, while reducing train weight and energy consumption.
When I analyzed this subject in 2009, I didn’t realize the degree to which the world standard had shifted. 75 percent of non-U.S. metros now offer open-gangway trains in their fleets, representing systems as varied as the brand-new networks in China to the ancient facilities in Berlin or Budapest. The last time Mexico City, Madrid, Oslo, or Amsterdam bought a train with individual, separated cars was back in the 1990s. Even our compatriots just across the border in Montreal and Toronto have come around. Every major train manufacturer offers trains with open gangways off the shelf. What is holding U.S. systems back?
Back in 2013, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced in its long-term capital needs assessment that “consideration should be given to” trains with open gangways. We’ve heard no more on this subject in the intervening time, despite some positive coverage of the news.
Yet the agency, like others around the country, has the opportunity to address some of its problems through the purchase of these trains. On the congested Lexington Avenue Line, which I discussed at the beginning, about 45.6 feet of each train’s 513.3-foot length is used up by the empty four feet between each car and the 10 feet reserved for the cabs at the center of the trains.
That means that, if the Lexington Avenue Line were transitioned to trains with open gangways, the line could gain almost an entire car-length of capacity on every train. That’s practically as much relief as the Second Avenue Subway will provide—at the cost of trains that would be purchased anyway.
Open gangways are hardly the end-all be-all of transit operations. They won’t guarantee better service or necessarily attract more riders. And they may not be able to resolve some issues, such as the fact that Washington’s Metro runs trains of different car lengths on each line.
But the fact that every U.S. transit agency—with the exception of Honolulu’s—has failed to adopt to this trend and has no plans to change, raises important questions. Just how much are the management of these transit agencies isolating themselves from world best practice? This is hardly an isolated case. The fact that transit agencies around the world are transitioning infrequent suburban rail operations into frequent regional rail services seems to be lost on most U.S. commuter rail agencies.
If the problem is simply a lack of knowledge, that’s no excuse given the existence of this website or Wikipedia or countless other sources. If the problem is petrified management, stuck in an older technological age and unable to try something new, staffers at those agencies should be working to convince them of at least the possibility of change. If the problem is some sort of U.S.-specific regulatory problem enforced by the federal government, let’s work to adjust it.
I’m skeptical that this technology is just “not possible” on historic U.S. systems; it’s been adapted to too many places around the world in all sorts of conditions for that to be the case. But if the problem is that transit agency management simply doesn’t care enough to adjust their operational standards to respond to improvements that can be offered to passengers, well… it’s time to kick the bums out.
* You could call trains with open gangways “articulated,” but this typically refers to a specific type of gangway, often where the truck (the bogies, where the wheels are) is right below the gangway. A traditional train would have two trucks supporting each car (a 10-car train would have 20 trucks), but an articulated train might have every two cars sharing one truck, such that a 10-car train could have as few as just 11 trucks, vastly reducing weight and energy consumption.
** For example, I compared two contracts conducted in the early 2000s with one metro manufacturer, Alstom. In 2001, Paris bought 805 metro cars (each 49.6 feet long, in open-gangway train configurations) for €695 million. In 2002, New York bought 600 subway cars (each 60.2 feet long, without open gangways) for $962 million. When converted to U.S. dollars (at the July 2001 rate of 1.16 dollars to the euro) and inflation-adjusted to 2002 dollars, the Paris contract was $820 million. This means that, per foot of subway car, Paris paid $20,535 and New York paid $24,200, despite the fact that New York’s contract included, as this article notes, lots of empty space!
|World metros, showing presence of open gangways on train fleets
Sort by clicking on column headers.
|Note: This list may have errors and it is incomplete; please comment if you identify any issues. The list only includes heavy rail services, not light-rail-grade services, such as the Frankfurt U-Bahn.|
Edit, April 11: I updated values for Moscow, Kazan, Kiev, Kharkiv, Sofia, and Novosibirsk to reflect the fact that they do not currently have metros with open gangways.