How electric subway works


Transport emergency around 1900

At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, industrialization made great strides. More and more people are moving from the countryside to the cities. London had just under a million inhabitants around 1800, and just 100 years later the city on the Thames was home to four and a half million people.

The cities of Paris, New York and Berlin also grew many times over during this period. Paris triples its population, Berlin increases tenfold to almost two million and New York holds the record and is growing from a tranquil nest of 79,000 people to a metropolis with around three and a half million inhabitants.

The city limits are expanding. Housing estates for the working population are being built near the factories, and neat suburbs in the green for the better-off. There are also commuters from neighboring villages. The ways are getting longer.

People can no longer get from one point in their city to another as quickly on foot. The first public transport, such as the horse-drawn omnibus, will soon no longer be able to cope with the crowd. In addition, the metropolises are so crammed with carts that there are significant disabilities. A solution has to be found, and quickly.

London is being tunnelled

After some political back and forth, construction of the subway began in London in March 1860. The engineers use the "cut and cover" method. The road surface will be torn up and covered again after completion of the section.

The world's first underground line, which connects two terminal stations, will be completed in just under three years. The subway, which was still powered by steam at that time, can begin its journey.

The success of the new means of transport is overwhelming. The operating company Metropolitan Railway, from which the term Metro will later be derived, already counts more than 40,000 passengers on the first day. In the following six months, more than 26,000 people used the subway every day.

Expansion thanks to new tunnel construction

It quickly becomes clear that this one route alone is not enough for London. The expansion is being worked on quickly. But soon there will also be natural limits to tunneling that have to be overcome. For example the tunneling under the Thames.

Thanks to engineer Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849) and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859), who had tried out tunnel construction in closed construction years earlier, construction in lower elevations is possible. The so-called shield tunneling method of the Brunels is perfected and implemented with modern technology. This technology is still used in tunnel construction today.

With this method, the round shield, which is driven through the earth, gives the tube its shape and the underground its name: The Londoners call it "The Tube".

With the construction of the tube, no more roads have to be torn open. In this way, the traffic on the surface is not disturbed and an even greater traffic chaos is prevented.

Electric drive replaces steam locomotive

27 years after the inauguration of the steam-powered subway, the tube railway opens on December 18, 1890. Since electrically powered locomotives are now ready for series production, the subway is also electric. There would be no other way in the deeper tunnels, because the steam could not escape.

The subway is now developing rapidly. Large European cities are following the London model and building metros. The first on the European continent is the Budapest Metro, which went into operation in 1896. Paris, Berlin and New York follow.

Worldwide triumph of the metro

Around 140 cities around the world currently have a metro. Most are in Europe, North America and East Asia, mainly in countries with a lot of industry. Paradoxically, there are comparatively few metro cities in the USA, although many large cities here in particular would be relieved of traffic by a subway system.

In the countries of the former USSR, on the other hand, the number of metro cities has grown steadily since 1989. However, some of the route networks are still under construction.

The congestion-free subway transports millions of passengers every day. Without them, huge traffic chaos would break out in many cities. The London Underground brings up to three million passengers a day to their destination through the underground tubes, and the Moscow Metro even carries up to nine million people a day.

Real and fake metros

The term metro stands for an inner-city means of transport with an independent system. But there are more and more mixed forms of the underground, such as the pre-metros, i.e. underground trams.

And some metros are called that, but in reality they are not at all: When city trains (S-Bahn) run a few kilometers underground, they are sometimes marked with a "U". Technically, however, they differ from real subways in terms of construction, operating system and vehicle technology.

Most of the subways - with a few exceptions, such as in Madrid - receive the electricity they need from a power rail. The signaling technology is also different from that of an S-Bahn or tram due to the short cycle times.

Contrary to popular belief, a metro does not necessarily have to go underground, as the example of New York proves. About half of the route network is above ground here.

The different names for this means of transport say nothing about the authenticity. "M├ętro" is the name of the underground in France and Spain, "Subway" in the USA and Japan, "Underground" in England, "Tunnelbana" in Scandinavia, "Subte" in Argentina and Uruguay.

Future of the subway

The subway is and will remain the fastest mode of transport for large cities. The underground engineers are working hard on further developments. The design of the trains and the stations is being fine-tuned - because in some cities, such as New York or London, most of the subway stations make a musty impression. The ultra-modern high-tech metros in Asian cities such as Tokyo or Seoul are different.

In London, the new era of the metro was ushered in with the Millennium Line, and a few years ago Athens also presented another modern, bright underground line. One station on this route is even designed as a museum and planetarium.

Automatic trains are also increasingly an issue. In 2008, for example, the first line without a driver ran in Nuremberg - with great success. Other cities such as Paris, London and Copenhagen have also switched to driverless trains in some cases. Because subways without a driver are more energy efficient, more punctual and more flexible.