If you’ve ridden the metro in cities like Paris, Shanghai, or Munich in recent years, you’ll know that they have something no American rapid transit line has on offer: articulated subway trains. Like many shorter light rail trains in the United States, those cities’ newest rolling stock are vehicles that, rather than trains made up of separated cars linked with impermanent connections, are jointed together permanently, allowing passengers to see and walk from one end to the other, usually several hundred feet away.
There are several important advantages of such trainsets. Notably, they increase capacity. Traincars in New York or Washington, for instance, are separated by an unusable gap of up to five feet – a waste of space in those cities’ often cramped trains. Articulated trains, on the other hand, allow passengers to fill those gaps and make them into habitable space, meaning that a typical 8-car train feels more like a less-congested 8-and-1/2-car train when articulated.
Articulation also allows passengers to spread out more evenly throughout the train, because you can get in at one end of the train and walk to the other without leaving.* This prevents the haphazard crowding conditions that sometimes plague subways, in which a car at one end of the train is crowded and a car at the other is completely empty. The hot and empty cars one sometimes sees in the heat of New York summers – where the air conditioning in one car stops working and everyone clears out, making the other cars more crowded – wouldn’t be possible in an articulated trains, where air circulates freely.
So helpful in adding capacity at peak hours, articulation ironically also has the benefit of making empty trains feel safer. By allowing passengers the ability to move between cars easily and to see passengers throughout the train, the isolation that can sometimes feel dangerous on a late-night subway is less of an issue, simply because the whole train is joined together like one huge car.
The obvious benefits of articulation have convinced cities like London and Toronto to order their next rolling stock in similar linked-train formations. What, then, is not to like? Why aren’t we seeing these vehicles being introduced in the United States?
I spoke to representatives of the transit systems in Washington and New York City to ask why their newest trains weren’t articulated and whether any new orders might be designed as such. A WMATA spokeswoman, Lisa Farbstein, told me:
“We have not designed our cars that way. It’s a choice we made when we started the system decades ago. No plans to change it just to change it.”
While I’ll let readers determine whether or not articulation’s sole purpose is “to change it just to change it,” Ms. Farbstein didn’t say much else. She declined to provide any technical reason why Washington was incapable of having articulated cars, which suggests to me that an articulated train such as a customized Bombardier Movia would work fine there. One issue that the spokeswoman declined to bring up was that Washington operates trains of different lengths along its lines; one advantage of working with impermanently connected cars, rather than permanently connected articulated trains, is that you can join together as many cars as you want at a time, rather than having to always run trains at a certain length. As Washington’s network matures, however, one could imagine seeing almost all lines running with eight car trains all the time, something rarely seen on the system today, whose predominant train type is the six-car set.
New York, on the other hand, runs full-length trains on almost all of its lines all of the time (the Brooklyn-Queens Crosstown G is the notable exception). MTA New York City Transit spokesman James Anyansi told me:
“MTA New York City Transit had considered an articulated train which was proposed by Kawasaki under the R110A contract. The proposal was, however, rejected by us due to the impact it would have had on the project’s budget and schedule… We may take another look at articulated trains in the future if and when we have a budget for Research and Design for an entirely new subway car.”
Though an MTA Metro-North Railroad spokesman told me that articulation would reduce seating and probably not meet FRA structural requirements, there are no such limitations for the city’s subway system according to Mr. Anyansi, and in fact, the city once had articulated cars in operation. The D-Type Triplex trains, manufactured by Pressed Steel, were used on the BMT division of the subway, ran between 1924 and 1965, and featured open connections between groups of three cars. The BMT also experimented over the years with a number of articulated trains constructed in up to five sections, though those projects were abandoned after city unification of the subway network.
It’s disappointing, given this history, to know that we won’t see articulated trains in our cities’ rapid transit networks in the next decade at least (Chicago’s recent order for new trains also did not demand articulation, and fleets in L.A., San Francisco, Philadelphia, Miami, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Boston are not up for fleet replacement at the moment.) But what’s most disappointing is the fact that there’s no technical reason why we can’t have them; rather, it is inertia – “no plans to change it just to change it” – that is holding back our nation’s subway systems from investing in what transit networks in foreign cities all around the world have adopted as the clear new standard.
* Admittedly, it’s possible to do the same on American subways, but that involves opening doors, braving the gap between cars, and usually breaking the rules of the transit system.