Friday, 7 October 2011

Moscow Notes: The Metro

The Moscow metro is a key part of the city. It’s known for its spectacular stations, built by Stalin to keep the population’s spirits up and inspire them with Soviet glory should they be forced to shelter there in a war. And they don’t disappoint – even the dull stations have high ceilings, tall columns and decorated walls, and the more ornate ones are adorned with mosaics, chandeliers, paintings, statues, plasterwork and marble – each different, and all beautiful.

But the metro’s not only amazing for its architecture. It’s also massive, extending all the way out to the outer ring road, and is it the second most-used rapid transit system in the world (Tokyo comes first, if you’re curious), with 10 million people using it every day to get to work. The trains come regularly every couple of minutes, starting at 5:30am and closing at 1am. Even on Sunday. Mobile phones work throughout the metro, and they’re talking about setting up wifi. Seriously, London can learn from this.

Lots of things they do are the same as London, too. People stand on the right on the escalators, which makes me feel bizarrely at home, and people queue in an orderly manner for the kassa. Everyone reads (a lot of them on kindles). There is a ‘Metro’ newspaper, which everyone reads in the morning. And no-one smiles, and everyone avoids looking at anyone else, and if they meet your eye by accident they turn away as quick as they can. So far, so familiar.

Of course there are things that are different. The timing boards tell you when the last train left, not when the next one is. On the plus side, if you know how often they are you can figure out how long you’ll be waiting, and at least they’re accurate, but on the other hand, it isn’t as helpful as knowing when the next one will be. The other main difference is the circle line – in London, anyone with sense avoids using it if they possibly can. It’s horribly slow, has a station every 10 metres, and the trains are enormously infrequent. So in Moscow, I began by instinctively arranging routes so as not to go on the circle line. I quickly learned my mistake – not only are the circle line stations the most spectacular, but it works incredibly quickly and the interchanges tend to be pretty short. Turns out that when they work, circle lines are actually pretty useful!

But the only thing which even comes close to a culture shock is the ticket barriers. They work on a smart card system (you either buy a pass, or a card with a certain number of journeys pre-loaded), but the barriers aren’t always closed, making it disturbingly easy to avoid tapping in by accident. To avoid this, there are police in scary uniforms with massive peaked caps stationed at strategic points in every station, and they don’t hesitate to stop you if they think you’re trying to dodge. Needless to say, this is slightly intimidating for the novice metro user – and, as a friend pointed out the other day, the terror you feel when the militzia move, and the relief you feel when you realise they’re stopping someone else and scurry away before they notice you, is a definite insight into how totalitarianism works!

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