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Undead Tech: The Modern Subway

So far in the Undead Tech series, I've traced back the roots of some pretty rich items: a $75,000 car Audi, a $200,000 spaceflight, and thousands of dollars in laptops, phones, mountain bikes, and e-readers. This installment will poke around in one colossally important everyday technology—one that buys us geographical freedom for the price of a hot dog. It's winter, in a crippling economic recession. Lets talk about the lowly subway train, which, like this beloved Internet of ours, is a series of tubes. (Below, a station in Prague, via Flickr.)

Prague train

Boston was the first American city to sport a real underground train; the Tremont Street subway line went subterranean in 1897, pioneering the modern system Bostoners call the T. Until the Tremont line's underground section, Boston's trains had been street-level and powered by steam, and worked alongside a streetcar system dating back to 1856 that used horse-drawn cars. Streetcar congestion was the impetus for the new underground trains. (Below, the Park Street station on the Green line in 1898).

Park Street station

The first tunnel systems, developed around the same time as engineering marvels like the Brooklyn Bridge, were downright ingenious; they incorporated such engineering ideas as grade-separated crossings and were tied into above-ground and elevated tracks. In New York, where the subway got its start as an experiment in 1869, Alfred Ely Beach used an enormous fan to suck a transit car along a one-block track under City Hall (sort of like those bank drive-thru deposit capsules (see below).

City Hall

Beach's experimental tunnel was destroyed while NYC was building its actual subway lines in the first decade of the 20th century. Those new subway lines would be privately owned: one system was owned by a company called the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, the other by the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (their 1906 map, below).

IRT map

The first city-owned competitor was the Independent Subway System, opened in 1932, and the city bought and integrated rest of the lines in 1940; they're now leased to the Metropolitan Transit Authority by the city. (Interestingly, the IRT lines were too narrow and its stations too small to integrate fully with the other two systems' trains, so those lines remain a separate "division" in today's subway, serviced by slightly different cars. IRT-legacy trains in New York are now represented by numbers (like the red 1, 2, and 3 lines) and the other division—the ISS and the BMT legacy lines—are represented by letters (like the blue A, C, and E lines.) Sixteen of these old stations are abandoned, like the gorgeous City Hall station of the IRT, seen below via (At bottom, a video explores Boston's abandoned tunnels.)

IRT City Hall

Moscow's subway stations make even the old City Hall stop seem homely. Below is the decorative ceiling at the Komsomolskaya-Koltsevaya station, via Flickr. Moscow's system is second only to Tokyo's in annual passenger volume (New York is fourth). Later stations, opened during World War II in 1943 and 1944, depict socialist realist art with a bellicose motif.


Other cities like Dubia, Shanghai, Bilbao, Munich, and Stocholm have brought their own fresh aesthetic to the modern subway. For other gorgeous stations like the Barcelona station below (via On-A) check out this DesignBoom photoset.)

Barcelona train station

The modern subway car is nearly as impressive as the modern station. New York's twin, spanking-new subway train cars, the R160A and R160B, are manufactured by Kawasaki Heavy Industry and Alston Transportation respectively, part of a car overhaul costing about $1.5 billion. Some models have digital line maps inside the cars, and most have regenerative braking, just like hybrid cars. (The two models are mostly identical, with minor exceptions; the R160A's doors make a noticeable whirring noise when opening and closing, and the R160B has glossier window trim, for example. Below, an A-model.)

R160-A train

Chicago's El, or elevated, train—one of only four in the U.S. offer 24-hour service—has sections as old as 1892, and is distinguished by its wooden downtown stops and its spoke-hub distribution paradigm that concentrates traffic at a central "Loop." Chicago's trains were some of the first to use multiple cars with centrally-controlled motors (on the South-Side El, circa 1897) and boasted the engineering prowess of the indomitable Charles Yerkes, mastermind of the London Underground. He was later immortalized in a 1914 novel called "The Titan," which you can read on Google Books here. (Below, the Chicago El in 1921.)

Chicago El Train

Washington, D.C.'s subway, the nation's second-busiest, has perhaps the most interesting station design. Opened in 1976 and boasting architecture by modernist Harry Weese, the D.C. system looks more like a spaceport than anything else. It also has one of the most convoluted fare systems, with enormous, confusing machines that calculate different prices between different stops, much like the London Underground. (New York and Chicago are flat-rate anywhere in the city; more for airport branches). DC's system is also known for its systemic rush-hour clog, a problem that reached its apogee on January 20, 2009, the day of Barack Obama's inauguration: 1.12 million riders passed through the turnstiles that day alone. (New York gets about 5 million riders on an average weekday.) Below, D.C.'s Metro Center station.

Metro Center station

If all this subway talk has you primed for some good old city tourism, check out this slideshow of the world's most impressive subway maps. Particularly cool: Madrid's angular design, Tokyo's circuit-board aesthetic, and D.C.'s extra-thick and colorful lines. (Below, an excerpt of Tokyo's map.)

Tokyo trains

If you decide to venture forth for a visit, don't leave home without the requisite apps. For New York, stick with iTrans and Exit Strategy NYC; the former gives you to-the-minute schedules, while the latter boasts bus maps, neighborhood maps and transfer info. Paris has a sweet augmented reality app called Metro Paris Subway (below), and Tokyo has an AR map app too, localized in English. London's Tube Deluxe app is also excellent, and just got a fresh update on December 28. If you'd rather have a smorgasbord, an app called Transit has dozens of basic world subway maps all in one app.

train apps

Below, exploring Boston's disused subway tunnels, courtesy of

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