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Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Miserable Moscow Metro

The Moscow Times reports on the horrors of Russia's creaking subway system, vividly illustrated in the above YouTube video. Moscow's stylish metro, with trains arriving every few seconds it seemed, used to be one of Russia's only unambiguously great achievements. Now, under neo-Soviet rule, that too is going the way of the dodo.

It's 8:30 a.m. on a weekday at Vykhino metro station, and the platform is five deep as people wait for the train.

As the commuter crowd continues to pour onto the platform in the southeastern outskirts of Moscow, a scuffle breaks out between a woman pushing a baby carriage and another woman as they try to get through the same turnstile. A moment later, a man rushes onto the platform and tries to violently push and shove his way past people to get to the arriving train.

Welcome to another typical, tense, overcrowded day on the Moscow metro, the busiest metro in the world. Built to carry 5 million passengers per day, it now carries close to 9 million, and is feeling the strain.

Traffic jams on the streets have become a daily part of Moscow life, and it is no better below the ground.

"It is heavily overloaded," said Nikolai Shumakov, the metro's chief engineer. "Before, there was a rush hour. Now the rush hour lasts from 5 in the morning to late at night."

The metro opens at 5:30 a.m. and closes at 1 a.m.

Even with trains coming at 30-second intervals in the morning, commuters often have to wait for three or four trains to pass before they are able to get on a train at some Moscow metro stations.

"It's getting worse and worse," said Yelena Rybkina, 37, a financial consultant, as she prepared to make her daily journey from Savyolovskaya to Baumanskaya. "People are becoming ruder and ruder. There is a lot less patience."

With 12 lines and 172 stations covering 278.8 kilometers, the metro cannot boast being the biggest in the world. But it is the busiest, with 2.6 billion passengers last year. New York has the most stations (478), and London has the most track (408 kilometers).

Moscow's busiest lines are the orange line, Kaluzhsko-Rizhskaya, and the purple line, Tagansko-Krasnopresnenskaya, both of which carried more than 1.3 million passengers a day last year. By comparison, the dark-blue line, Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya, carried less than half that number.

As Moscow's population has grown from 8.8 million in 1990 to 12 million today -- with 2 million to 3 million people commuting from the Moscow region every day -- so has the number of passengers using the metro. Crowds are the largest between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. on weekdays, when 920,000 passengers were crammed in the metro at one time last year. The other rush hour is from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., when 828,000 million passengers were in the system. At least 400,000 passengers are in the metro at any given time between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m.

The London Underground carried 2.67 million passengers a day in 2004 and 2005.

The busiest metro stations in Moscow are those on the periphery such as VDNKh, Kuzminki, Novogireyevo, Rechnoi Vokzal, Tushinskaya, Shchyolkovskaya and Yugo-Zapadnaya. All these stations are end points for the suburban trains and buses that flood into the city every day from the Moscow region.

Kitai-Gorod, which links the orange and the purple lines, is the busiest in the city center, with 100,000 to 150,000 passengers every day, according to metro figures.

"The metro can't survive," Shumakov said, adding that 100 to 150 kilometers of new lines are needed to relieve congestion.

Metro management has introduced trains with more cars on some lines in mornings to alleviate the problem, but believes that vast expansion, which will include a second circle line, is needed. The city of Moscow has earmarked 15 billion rubles ($570 million) in funding for next year. But with one kilometer of metro costing between $30,000 and $70,000 to construct and less than three kilometers built in 2005, the ambitious expansion program could take years to complete.

Some city officials are reluctant to admit they have a problem.

"Nearly 10 million people travel, and the metro copes and does not create problems for passengers," said Maria Potsenko, spokeswoman for the city's department of transport and communications.

Anyone traveling in the center, though, is witness to daily scenes where platforms, escalators and connecting passages between metro lines seem to be overwhelmed with people. Photographs of the swarms of people packing metro stations are popular on local blog sites.

A new city plan to build parking lots on the edge of city to reduce road traffic will likely exacerbate the problem as people resort to public transportation.

Furthermore, the city can build as many new stations as it wants, but that will not decrease the number of people traveling in the city center.

"You can't increase the inside of the metro. You can't make another two or three levels," said Oleg Bely, head of the Institute of Transport Problems in St. Petersburg.

Moscow's metro problems can only be solved if the public and private transportation system is integrated and coordinated as a whole, Bely said. The city should place a priority on public transportation, ensuring the swift movement of trams, buses and metro, he said.

Potsenko, the City Hall spokeswoman, said the city does have an integrated transportation strategy, a 500-page document that will introduce special bus lanes in some streets. Recently, Mayor Yury Luzhkov suggested moving the start of city employees' working day from 9 a.m. to 7 a.m. to relieve congestion.

Bely refused to comment on the transportation strategy, saying: "You can go out on the street and see it for yourself."

He noted, though, that London is returning trams to the city, while Moscow is removing them. Tramlines on Leningradsky Prospekt were torn up last year. He said trams would have to return, because they are one of the most efficient means of public transportation.

Special bus lanes also need to be created to give people an incentive to leave their cars, Bely said.

"You have your own car, but you know that it is more comfortable and quicker on public transportation," he said.

Back in the metro car from Vykhino, the doors open at Kuzminki and a horde pushes and shoves its way in. Two men start swearing at each other, but there is no room for a fight. Instead they are squashed together, and their faces remain a few angry centimeters apart.

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